Parker’s Birth of a Nation forces Nation’s Attention to lesser known Historical Figures


Nate Parker’s powerful new film, Birth of a Nation

Answering the Call of Freedom: Moses Dickson and the Knights of Liberty Confront Slavery

S. T. Livingston, Ph.D.

In the heat of March, 1848, leading up to the Decade of crisis, a Black barber stood bent over the slumped person of a White slave owner reclining in his barber’s chair. Despite the extremely sharp straight-razor in the Black man’s right hand, the plantation owner continued his conversation with a colleague on the latest article in De Bows Review, a periodical dedicated to best practices and methods of slavery. The merits of phrenology of the enslaved at birth was the topic during this shave. Moses Dickson, now a master barber aboard the river steamboat, the Oronoco, leaned over the ‘gentleman farmer’s exposed neck stoically giving no indication that the conversation was taking place. His apprentice-ship under Mr. William Darnes early on taught him two priceless lessons: restraint and the lesson of what we may call ‘operative invisibility’—the ability to function in the presence of ‘mixed company’ while giving no indication of your perceptive presence. Distinct from the humor and poignancy that Samuel Clemmons and others would find on these riverboats, Moses Dickson, like many of the majority Black crew members saw the bloodstained markings of the Domestic Slave trade. They observed, suppressed their rage, but conspired to liberate of their people.

For over four years now, Dickson gave no indication of his plan, similar to that of John Brown to free his people and end slavery by any means necessary. According to his Manual of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, his three years of travel took him throughout the South changed his life permanently, and committed him to the cause of Black freedom:

(He) witnessed such scenes of monstrous cruelty as caused his African blood to boil with suppressed indignation at the sight of the outrageous suffering of his people.  What he saw in these three years made a lasting impression on his heart, and he became a life-foe to the slave-owner, the slave-driver and the slave-trader.[1]

The year 1856 was a critical turning point in African American and American history. The nation was moving headlong toward division, torn by discord over the morality, ethics, politics and economics of Slavery—a profitable enterprise for White America, Peculiar Institution to some, the Evil Institution to others. Abolitionists of varied creeds and colors stepped up to oppose slavery. Among other events including the first attempted run of the largely abolitionist Republican party, the outbreak of Bleeding Kansas skirmishes over slavery and continuation of the final Seminole War (1855-58), which involved rebel Creeks and Gullah and Geechee runaways from the plantations of Georgia and South Carolina. Moses Dickson is one of the lesser known abolitionists and one whose story presents him, at once, as one of the most militant, ethical and pragmatic leaders in antebellum African American history.

Dickson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 5, 1824 into a migrant family that had escaped slavery in Virginia.[2] His life in that city mirrored the growth of the Black population there. As White Cincinnatians grew wary of the growing Black population—200 in 1820, but by 1829 2,258 people of color—they managed that growth through legal and social proscriptions and mob violence. By 1830, between 1,100 to 2000 Black people were forced to emigrate under punishment of imprisonment, which would likely mean (re)enslavement in nearby Kentucky, Tennessee, or worse: being sold down the river to enslavement in the rice swamps of South Carolina, Georgia or the Gulf coast states. Young Moses’ parents Robert and Hannah Dickson, are not listed as residents of Hamilton County, Ohio in the census of 1830. This omission speaks volumes the invisible or underground Black community in Cincinnati. His family was a part of this browbeaten underground community, which may have contributed to his committed and militant response to racist oppression. When he was eight years old, his father died; six years later, in 1838 his mother also died.[3]

The premature death of Dickson’s parents is wholly consistent with the poor living conditions for Blacks in Ohio. While their condition must have been better than their enslaved brethren, it was by no means easy. Two years after Dickson’s birth, Whites formed a local chapter of the American Colonization Society, the “Cincinnati Colonization Society with 120 members, including many prominent citizens.”[4] The ACS was committed to emigration of freed Black people back to Africa. While they had notable Black supporters, most Blacks did not choose to leave the land of their birth. In 1829, the Ohio legislature banned Blacks from attending its common schools and in 1838, it banned funding of Black education.[5] In 1829 and in 1836, Dickson’s family witnessed serious attacks on the Black community. In the future abolitionist’s twelfth year, a race riot began in Cincinnati as a direct attack on the abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, and its White editor, James G. Birney. After destroying Birney’s press, the mob spilled its destructive energies over into an African community called ‘Church Alley.’ Blacks drove the White mob back by firing small-arms into the crowd. After the mob abated, it regrouped and launched a second attack and the Black residents had to abandon their houses and leave the area. The mob destroyed the contents of the homes.[6]

In 1840, he left the city at the age of sixteen to ply the profitable barbering trade on steamboats throughout the south. Similar to David Walker and other militant abolitionists of his era, Dickson saw martial action as the most effective means of ending slavery. He decided to organize in the interests of his race by calling on eleven cohorts whom he met in the course of his travels throughout the south—John Patton and Henry Wright from South Carolina; James Bedford and Silus W. Green from Mississippi; Irvin Hodges of Alabama; Peter Coleman and Willis Owens from Virginia; James Orr, Louisiana; Miles Graves of North Carolina; Henry Simpson from Georgia; and Lewis Williams from Tennessee.[7] These men gathered in St. Louis, Missouri on August 12, 1846 at Seventh and Greene Street not far from the Mississippi river. We do not have the details of much of this history, but according to Dickson, the rebellion was planned for either December 25, 1856 or July, 1857.[8] By 1856, ostensibly, his twelve cabalists had organized “47,000 Knights of Liberty, for the purpose of aiding in breaking the bonds of our slavery…”[9] He continues, we expected to arrive at Atlanta with at least 150,000 well-armed men.”[10] Interestingly, Dickson cancelled the rebellion in 1856 for unknown reasons, but most likely, the Bleeding Kansas episode and the steady reversals in the Third Seminole War, both of which heightened the militancy of the South. While we may never know why, we do know that his contributions helped to speed the end of the Evil institution.

MDicksonPossibly inspired by others who resisted slavery, like abolitionists, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown and rebels like Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and the Seminole leader, Osceola, Dickson planned only one of the 313 slave rebellions in Black history. He and Brown planned to incite mass slave rebellions that would settle almost three centuries of debate over the right or wrong of the institution. To put it mildly, the extent of extreme measures to end slavery has been downplayed by conventional American history writing. But most notable in this year is the story of Moses Dickson and the Knights of Liberty. Dickson and his followers claimed to be at the center of the Slave Insurrection Scare of 1856-57; a claim consistent with the historical record, but unaccepted in general American historiography of the antebellum South. The documented existence of enslaved African resistance on plantations combined with guerrilla warriors based in maroon communities, (Seminole War and otherwise), demonstrates Black commitment to liberty and agency during this darkest hour of American history. Dickson’s narrative also adds to the history of principled leaders who answered the call for freedom.

[1] Dickson, Manual, 9-10.

[2] See Randall Burkett, et al. (ed.) Black Biography, 1790-1950: A Cumulative Index 2 vols., (Alexandria: Chadwyck-Healey, 1991), I: 353; J. J. Pipkin, The Story of a Rising Race: The Negro in Revelation, in History and in Citizenship (Baltimore: Thompson Publishing Company, 1902), 480; Dickson, Manual , 9. Patrick O’Connor, Assistant Marshal of St. Louis County, (Census Record of 1860, Schedule 1 – Free Inhabitants in the Third Ward of St. Louis City, MO, July 3, 1860, p. 182).

[3] Dickson, Manual, 9.

[4] Richard C. Wade, “The Negro in Cincinnati, 1800-1830.” J. of Negro History 34 (January 1954), 49.

[5] On the marginalization of Blacks in the North see C. G. Woodson, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830; together with a brief treatment of the free Negro. (Washington, DC: The Association for the Study of Negro Life & History, 1925), liii; R. C. Wade, “The Negro in Cincinnati, 1800-1830.” J. of Negro History 34 (January 1954), 47; C. G. Woodson, “Negroes of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War,” J. of Negro History 1, (1916), 2, 3.

[6] Woodson, “Negroes of Cincinnati,” 8-9.

[7] Dickson, Manual, 11.

[8]Dickson, Manual (1922), p.11. Interestingly, Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” Journal of Southern History 41 (August 1975), 322, footnote 2 and Caleb P. Patterson in The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865. (New York: Negro Universities Press), 49-50 support Dickson’s dating of a general insurrection to December 25, 1856 or July, 1857.

[9] Dickson, Manual, 16.

[10] ibid, Manual, 19.

2 thoughts on “Parker’s Birth of a Nation forces Nation’s Attention to lesser known Historical Figures

  1. Wow! Sam, your monograph of Moses Dickson is very well written and is a valuable contribution to the field of Black liberation history in antebellum America. Similar to my narrative of Georgia-born Gullah-Geechee heroine of freedom, Susie King Taylor, it is fascinating that these early freedom fighters were able to gather critical information while under the gaze of their white slave owners, employers, or apprenticeships that served to aid in their strategic revolts to the Peculiar institution, and to coalesce alliances and networks all along the major waterways, the Mississippi River in the case of Dickson and the Atlantic Ocean in the case of Taylor. To some extent, I would also include Robert Smalls’ absconding of the CSS The Planter, although a singular one-man revolt, to this genre of Black liberation and agency that seemingly evades traditional historiography as you have noted. I hope this article is part of a larger publication about radical abolitionist Moses Dickson and the Knights of Liberty. I enjoyed reading this article very much. Thanks for sharing this. Please advise if I may share this to enlighten folks about this little known, but important history of the struggle for black liberation.

    1. Thank you Hermina,

      Writing narratives like Dickson’s, Taylor’s, Smalls’ and Tubman’s adds to our awareness of the range of responses to white supremacy and enslavement. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m committed to telling stories of Black resistance more fully. We should collaborate on a project.

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